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Moments in Queer History: The Marquis de Lafayette and Adah Isaacs Menken

Michael Bronski's A Queer History of the United States features many figures from U.S. History, those both well-known and lesser-known. Today we share two moments from America's queer history.

The Marquis de Lafayette George Washington at Valley Forge

June 12, 1799: The Marquis de Lafayette writes a passionate letter to George Washington expressing his deep affection for the General. Lafayette writes, “There was never a friend… so tenderly beloved, as I love and respect you.” These “romantic friendships” were not uncommon in Washington’s day. Enlightenment ideals such as brotherhood and rational love paved the way for a “homosocial” sphere in society, one where intense same-sex friendships became an important outlet in (and complement to) marriage.

Adah Isaacs Menken Adah Isaacs Menken as Mazeppa

June 15, 1835: Poet and actor Adah Isaacs Menken is born. Menken became internationally infamous when she took the male lead in Mazeppa, a play based on the narrative poem by Lord Byron. At the show’s climax she appeared, practically nude, riding a live horse across the stage. Her work as an actress, coupled with the fact that Menken had both male and female lovers, lead public moralists to portray her as a socially dangerous and “unruly woman.”

Listen to Michael Bronski discuss A Queer History of the United States on The Callie Crossley Show and Radio Boston today. And you can see him read at Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge tonight.